TV Shows, Pop Culture

This Egyptian sitcom got me rethinking class divides in the country

Class differences are played for laughs, but the reality they reflect is very serious.

It’s not often that a sitcom gets me thinking about social hierarchies and the class system, but this Ramadan, as I was watching the comedy show, “Nelly & Sherihan,” I couldn’t help but think how this seemingly silly show, with its plot based around the popular Mickey Mouse magazines, was actually making a powerful statement about classism in Egypt.

The two central characters of the sitcom, Nelly and Sherihan, played by sister comedians Donia and Amy Samir Ghanem, are cousins who happen to come from diverging social backgrounds. Nelly is the stereotypical rich spoiled girl that lives in her own bubble, and Sherihan is her complete opposite, living in a rundown working class neighborhood. Understandably, they  lived separate lives due to their clashing natures and conflicting lifestyles, until an unexpected turn of events jumpstarts the plot. The state confiscates Nelly’s father’s assets and puts him in jail. Nelly, at a loss with no money and nowhere to go, seeks help from Sherihan after being rejected by her own upscale society. The rest of the sitcom depicts the development of their relationship as they embark on a series of (mis)adventures to find their grandfather’s hidden treasure by following the complicated clues he hid in various Mickey Mouse comic magazines.

As you can imagine, the humor in this show is mainly derived from the glaring contrast between the two classes in every aspect: how they speak, how they dress, and how different their priorities in life are. Sherihan is forced to put up with her cousin’s selfish nature, while Nelly is appalled at Sherihan’s unrefined behavior and unsophisticated lifestyle. But, regardless of the show’s simplistic and exaggerated take on social differences, the sitcom’s manifestations of this social divide echo what many Egyptians encounter in their day to day lives.

[bctt tweet=”To me, classism is a very funny thing. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

Egypt’s widening wealth gap and income differences are growing fiercer every day.  26 percent of Egyptians live below the national poverty line, meaning that they earn less than 1.40 USD a day, while only six Egyptian businessmen own 4.3 percent of the country’s total wealth. They reportedly continue to get richer as annual growth gains fail to trickle down to those in dire need. Even the middle class have it hard. They live on the edge, selling their souls to corporate jobs in order to live a decent life, while constantly battling the ghost of poverty should they ever lose their jobs and be forced to rely on their exhaustible savings. This social gap we have goes back to a history of corruption and an ever-flailing economy, which continue to widen and deepen the gap further.

I see symptoms of this social dichotomy everywhere I go in my hometown, Cairo. Almost every affluent district is neighbored by an underprivileged one. Towering buildings owned by rich tycoons overlook poverty-stricken slums in an almost ridiculous way. Luxury cars are side by side in the streets with donkey carts and public buses that brim with people hanging out the doors. In a country where close to a third of the population can’t afford but to eat once a day, you’ll find all kinds of posh restaurants and luxury brand shops sprawling through the city’s streets and malls. TV ads are also an indicator of the ever widening gap between social classes in Egypt. You’ll  come across charity ads urging viewers to give to the sick, poor, and needy followed by a plethora of provocative commercials about luxurious gated residential compounds promoting “the good life” for the upper and middle classes. We are no longer weirded out by the stark contrast. We have long ago adapted  to the social dynamics that come along with it.

[bctt tweet=”We are no longer weirded out by the stark contrast.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Classism has become part and parcel of each one of us. Is it a mere byproduct of a miserable economic situation? Is it colonial baggage? Does it go back to the age of the Pharaohs, where classes were clearly set apart? Or is it just that every society has to have its own version of apartheid? It could be any of these reasons, or an amalgamation of all four, with a few other variables added in for good measure. But, the fact remains that classism is deeply seated in our society even if we want to get rid of it.

We judge each other based on our material possessions, our level of education, the way we dress and talk, the places we go to and what family lineage we have. The first thing you do upon meeting someone new if you’re an Egyptian is sizing them up, determining what background they belong to and unconsciously projecting all your preconceived notions about that certain background onto them. The rich do it, the middle class do it, and the working class do it.

[bctt tweet=”The rich do it, the middle class do it and the working class do it. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

Generally, due to their advantages such as a quality education, inherited money, and family lineage, upper and middle classes feel some kind of internalized superiority over the working class. If not enraged, members of the lower class tend to accept the classism that befalls them. They typically feel inferior to the higher classes, ashamed of their behavior patterns, and at times feel superior to those who are less fortunate in the same class.

This is glaringly evident in “Nelly & Sherihan,” even as it’s played for comedy. While both put on exaggerated accents to reflect their class backgrounds and elicit a laugh from the audience, the humor comes from two very different places. For Nelly, with her Westernized accent and her frequent use of English to make up for a stunted Arabic vocabulary, the humor comes from genuine amusement at an ignorance that is largely optional for someone who was born and raised in the country. With Sherihan, however, whose accent reflects a poorer education and an intimate knowledge of working class slang, the humor is of the embarrassing, cringe-worthy kind. They’re both ignorant in different ways, but Nelly’s ignorance of her own people and language is played off as silly, whereas Sherihan’s limited awareness of the outside world as a result of limited opportunities is played as embarrassing and shameful.

To me, classism is a very funny thing. Unlike racial discrimination, everybody, including the rich, is subjected to it. If you are rich, you have to abide by a certain set of high society rules that you will be judged by. There will always be someone richer, someone “higher,” and someone just” better” than you are. The same goes for the middle and working classes. Social classification is just so relative. You can’t really tell that X belongs to that class while Y belongs to another, because, someone from a different social class will put X and Y in different categories.  Also, if you are like many Egyptians and you have relatives from both ends of the social spectrum (like Nelly and Sherihan), can you really say that you come from a certain social class? Can you treat others based on this inconsistent set of rules?

[bctt tweet=”Social classification is just so relative.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I can’t argue against the way society has been laid out. Variety and difference are universal laws.  But, we always translate difference into hierarchy systems. What makes the “ up-ness” in upper classes and the “low-ness” in the lower classes? Is it about material stuff, culture, and education, or is it about pure hearts and good character? The show, for what it’s worth, attempts to address this issue, calling Nelly out on her condescending attitude as she begins to genuinely bond with the poorer side of the family. But at the end of the day, it’s clear that the Nellys and Sherihans of the world will always be different people. Despite their shared family – their shared country – the class barrier between them stands as firmly at the end of the show as it did when it first began.